The Quaker artist Edward Hicks is well known among the Religious Society of Friends, but less so among others. Though an adept and respected minister in his own faith, it is for his series of paintings that he is now largely remembered. The reverse was true in his own lifetime. One often considers folk artists like Hicks either charmingly unskilled or unforgivably untrained. Detractors see him as the Grandfather of C.M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker series. Supporters see a self-taught painter who eventually developed a sophisticated technique. That debate aside, his best known work, The Peaceable Kingdom, has 61 different versions, each modifications from paintings prior.
Dec 13 2010
Mar 01 2010
After meeting this morning I was approached by a Friend (fellow Quaker) who seemed deeply impressed at my latest vocal ministry. The first question she asked was “So, how long have you been here?”
I suppose I could have taken some offense to this, based on the fact that I’ve shared messages regularly, with a five month break in between, for nearly a year and a half. Though we had never talked directly, I knew her face and I certainly knew her through her words and her participation in First Day worship. That it took a particularly powerful message to give her the inclination to speak to me at all is something I lament. After all, I never know what message the Light of God is going to grant me from week to week, and while certainly I am pleased when it makes a major impact upon the worship service, any message I speak is no more or no less blessed nor inspired by the Divine.
Part of what I’m dealing with, unfortunately, is ageism. In surveying a very large cross-sample of faith communities, I have discovered that they are often disproportionately comprised of the middle aged and above and sometimes comprised almost exclusively of senior citizens. To their credit, I recognize that many faith groups have taken the initiative to address this directly and have coined acronyms, buzz words, and clever titles to draw more younger worshipers into the fold. The intent is often noble, but the follow through is frequently less than a rousing success.
The reality is that when you’re in an older community, it’s a lot more difficult to be taken seriously as a young person. As has been evident with me, you have to really prove yourself first. So far as “young” is concerned, I’m only a few months away from 30, so I’m not exactly fresh out of adolescence anymore, but even those of us quickly entering the third decade of existence are all too often not nearly as involved or even as inclined to share vocal ministry or actively participate in meeting functions. I, of course, am different in that regard, quite deliberately so, and while I appreciate the fact that my regular participation often encourages those in my general age range to show up, I am also often the only person younger than say, 45, who feel comfortable or moved to share a message. I know that there are others my age who would not shy away from opening their mouths and sharing with the rest of the meeting their own inward, equally valid stirrings of the Light.
If only this phenomenon pertained purely to faith communities. It is true in many organizations, regardless of political allegiance, ideology, cause, or any other metric. Just as before, those who are younger than the statistical mean often have to deeply impress the regular participants before they are considered part of the whole. If they are incorporated at all, they are sometimes included merely as an afterthought or as a token member, meant to serve as the entire voice of a generation, when surely we have realized by now that one person alone can never serve as the mouthpiece for a very diverse, highly unique group of people, regardless of their superficial similarities.
I recognize, certainly, that this is a habit pattern more than any desire to exclude. It’s easy for us to get lulled into submission by The Way Things Have Always Been Here™. This is why I am not particularly outraged by this sort of behavior as much as simply annoyed and inspired to speak out against it. It wouldn’t take much to correct this kind of willful slumber if we were willing to embrace the idea that change is neither incomprehensible, nor threatening, nor some sort of zero sum game whereby we somehow lose what we have at the expense of someone else. We all gain from opening our eyes a bit wider and with that comes the richness of greater participation and the wealth of insight which exists when many different people contribute their own voices and their own experiences.
We might recognize then that we are made stronger and more enlightened, not less so when we see the beauty of life’s pallet projected upon a canvass of our own creation. We might understand that there is more that links us together based on our common humanity than the few superficial differences exploited by those who aim to keep us separate, not just from ourselves, but also from God, who craves our collective unity as much as he loves each of us equally and without condition. If we learn these lessons, we will have that which drives us and propels us forward towards the change we know we must have.
My prayer is, as it has always been, that we will reach this point, someday.
Nov 25 2009
Dissatisfaction in Progressive circles with President Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress continues to swell and grow. Indeed, I myself am deeply disappointed that the same old legislative and partisan stalemates seem to be so firmly entrenched that even a phenomenon promising optimism and significant reform could not break old habits. Still, rather than resort to the Howard Fineman/Maureen Dowd approach and play a game of “I-told-you-so”, I’d much rather avoid pettiness altogether and attempt to understand why we are faced with politics-as-usual when we are at a point in our nation’s history when we can least afford it. Answers exist beyond the usual discourse though they are rarely raised when many would rather exchange philosophy for wonkery. Wonkery has its place, but what we seek now are solutions and ideas, not process and jargon.
Regarding our current crisis of several reform measures that have bogged down or are in danger of being passed or scuttled depending on the hours, much of the problem arrives when one considers that we are frequently confused by different allegiances to often incompatible schools of information dispersal and guidance. Either we are in a stage in between two different paradigms or we have tried to blend together two absolutely contradictory styles, wondering why we can’t get any results afterward. Conservatives frequently use purely linear leadership to achieve their ends and we on the left often use an uneasy mash up between linear leadership and its asymmetric counterpart.
Linear leadership is the sort that was brought to this country by European colonists. A small continent in land mass contained an enormous variety of different cultures, different languages, and different ways of looking at life. With so much variance and so little likelihood of reaching consensus or finding common purpose, a forceful style of conducting affairs developed that quickly grew highly stratified and regimented. In it, hierarchies, pecking orders, and ranking systems became of paramount importance, as did the underlying assumptions that leaders were few, followers were many, and a passive kind of obedience was to be practiced. In all areas of Western life, this style dominated. Speaking from a purely Christian perspective, most Christian denominations, sects, and faith groups even to this day follow this same model, whereby a leader (called by a variety of different names depending on which group one ascribes) frequently instructs fellow believers in the form of a sermon and holds much power to direct church policy. A linear system is a passive manner of conveying a message. I talk, you listen. Placing power in the hands of a structured system frequently disenfranchises people and glosses over distinctions, but it is deliberate, effective, and highly successful in dividing and conquering as well as hammering home a singular message.
Grassroots groups, however, are run on an asymmetric brand of leadership. The idea is often not about top-down leadership, but on a more egalitarian approach where each individual voice is as important as anyone else’s. Frequently, however, this creates problems when it comes down to agreeing on any uniform statement or platform that the entire group endorses as a whole. What is frequently advanced is a notion that everyone has to find his or her own path towards understanding the challenges and issues the group seeks to influence and reform while simultaneously pressing the notion that no one’s path or interpretation should be ranked as more or less important by the organization as a whole. The problem with grassroots groups is that they seek to affect policy by using one particular strategy that is not found within politics itself. Politics is structured from top-to-bottom and rarely are those at the bottom granted the ability to speak with any degree of authority. They are expected instead to be good foot soldiers, never question party line, with the hopes that they might rise up through the ranks and achieve greater distinction and a greater ability to be taken seriously and to contribute to the group dynamic.
Many Native American groups were based upon an asymmetric model when it came down to making tribal decisions and stating individual opinions. Though it was certainly more uniformly fair, its key failing was that it did not foster group unity, unintentionally creating factionalism in the process. Native Americans never had the same sense of common purpose and common unity that Europeans did, which was why they were so easily defeated in battle and by court action. Different tribes rarely felt any sense of collective solidarity with each other and there was often dissent and schism within tribes. Some faith traditions, of which unprogrammed Quakers are one, have their worship services more aligned with this philosophy. Unprogrammed Quakers have no minister and conduct worship without any element, aside, of course, from the start and the finish, planned out beforehand. However, they often have difficulty reaching uniformity on a large scale basis and particularly from region to region, yearly meeting to yearly meeting. As a result, different subsets and regional groups have very different priorities and very different ideas about what ought to be important and advanced.
The 9/12 and Tea Party groups have faced this same problem and are in danger of breaking apart. Motivated only by their opposition to what they perceive as a common threat, they have frequently broken apart when unable to achieve anything resembling one coherent message. We might gloat at their self-destructive behavior, but learning from their mistakes and not repeating them within ourselves might be the best lesson of all. We will need to ask ourselves, individually and collectively, what school do we want to set forth? Top-down or spread-around? Whatever we choose will need to be soberly contemplated, because each method has pros and cons, and so long as our opposition continues to use tactics that can, as we have seen, divide us easily in the hopes of conquering us, we cannot take this matter lightly. We might have to acknowledge that a House divided against itself cannot stand. It will become all one thing or all the other.
Jul 10 2009
Recent events have made it somewhat evident that the current system of global governance is inadequate for the problem of abrupt climate change. A suggestion that is slowly becoming more popular is that of a new system of global governance, and so this is a review of Peter G. Brown and Geoffrey Garver’s (2009) book Right Relationship: Building A Whole Earth Economy. Right Relationship is, to a significant extent, a “Quaker” outline for the reconcilement of economy with ecology; meaningfully, its transformative suggestions do seem quite apropos of the need for post-capitalist environmental design.
(crossposted at Big Orange)